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Pirates down Grizzlies in back-and-forth, physical battle

OCEANSIDE – Every time Mission Hills gained momentum against Oceanside on Friday night, the top-ranked Pirates had an answer. Both teams traded shots throughout the game, but Oceanside made the big plays down the stretch to beat the third-ranked Grizzlies in a physical 26-17 contest.

“This is a big one for us,” said Oceanside senior quarterback Tofi Paopao. “We’re glad we came out with the win and we just have to go back to work.”

Oceanside (4-1) led 19-10 after three quarters, a margin that Mission Hills cut into with a defensive score early in the fourth quarter. With 9:33 left to play, Grizzlies junior defensive back Chad Nolan scooped up a Pirates’ fumble and raced 67 yards for a touchdown to make it a two-point game.

“Mission Hills was playing great the whole game, and they never stopped – they kept on pushing,” Paopao said.

On the second play of the ensuing drive, Oceanside took to the air to deliver the knockout blow to Mission Hills (3-2). Paopao connected with junior receiver Thai Cottrell in the middle of the field on a play-action pass, and Cottrell raced past the Mission Hills defense for a 67-yard touchdown to put the Pirates back ahead by nine with 9:03 remaining.

“That was the big momentum play for us,” Paopao said. “We hadn’t run it the whole game though we worked on it all week. We clicked on all cylinders – the linemen gave me time, Thai ran a great route, and we had a good fake.”

After the long touchdown pass, Mission Hills went three-and-out and Oceanside held the ball for nearly five minutes to prevent a comeback attempt by the Grizzlies. The catch-and-carry was the biggest play of the physical, defensive game.

“Tofi has an excellent arm – he just saw me open and he threw it. I had to keep my eye on it,” Cottrell said. “We just had to take what we had – they’re a very physical team.”

Both teams scored on their opening drives, and Mission Hills led 7-3 after the first quarter. Oceanside opened the scoring with a 21-yard field goal by senior Fernando Elizarraraz, and Mission Hills responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a four-yard pass from junior quarterback Connor Wynn to senior tight end Jacob Carson in the last minute of the quarter.

“I wasn’t trying to make anything big out of it – I was just trying to pretend that it was any other game and not get too nervous,” said Wynn, who attended Oceanside as a freshman before transferring to Mission Hills last season.

Early in the second quarter, Oceanside took a 9-7 lead when junior receiver Mikah Holder laid out to haul in a Paopao pass in the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown. The Pirates extended their lead to 12-7 with an Elizarraraz 43-yard field goal just before halftime.

“We just executed our offense and defense well,” Paopao said.

Mission Hills moved methodically down the field on the opening possession of the second half, a drive that spanned nearly seven minutes and resulted in an Austin Fletcher 32-yard field goal. Oceanside countered with a 75-yard scoring drive topped off with a three-yard run by senior running back William Gulley that made it 19-10 with 1:52 left in the third quarter.

“In the second half we came out a little slow – they drove down the field and we had some bad penalties,” Cottrell said. “We just had to rebound and make the big play.”

With the victory, Oceanside solidified its spot atop the section. The Pirates dispatched a ranked opponent in a hard-hitting battle for the second straight week.

“It’s really important – just us making a statement,” Cottrell said. “We won’t see them in the playoffs this season, but they’re a really good team.”

Mission Hills matched Oceanside’s physical play, but fell a few plays short of upsetting the Pirates. The Grizzlies are still considered favorites to win the Avocado East League and contenders for the Division I title.

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